“Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be that of a dying person.”
– Marcus Aurelius
As my parents prepare their will and write down at what state of health they want to their life to be terminated – I am inspired to face the facts of our existence once more. All of us are born, and all of us will die. An uncomfortable fact too often pushed aside and ignored to hide from the primal fear for the infinite void. But as in all things, there is a balance and sparkle of greatness to be found in facing the truth head on.
From when I saw my dog die as a small child, a primal and deep fear of the consequences of death has been embedded in my spirit. As a young boy, I literally lay awake at night with sweat on my forehead contemplating the complete nothing that we will face after we die. As I grew older, this fear was slowly pushed back into the forgotten depths on my mind as I focused on practicalities. I finished school, I made friends, I exercised and I got a great job.
Now, having been forced to stare into the face of death and with newfound wisdom I look back on those days and realize that my fear has never truly gone away. It had simply shifted into a more sinister, underground darkness slowly corrupting my life and the choices I made. Instead of facing the truth that we will all die I tried unconsciously to avoid death, change and defeat. My choices were bland, safe and I did my utmost best to stay in my comfort zone as much as I could.
And as I did, my achievements – from a standard, western perspective – were great; I had it all; A stable life, owning a home, a responsible family car, an excellent paying 9-5 job, a loving pet and a beautiful woman at my side – feeding my ego even further and subconsciously made me turn away even more from the contemplation of death. In essence, my achievement cowardly protected and covered up my underlying fear of death.
After all, I am in control of my life and I decide what life will look like.
A whisper of mortality
Whether truthfully displayed or not – there is a great story of an ancient Roman tradition circulating that resonates very well with this concept.
As the Roman empire would sweep the globe with their great armies – the general leading the battle would eventually return home victorious. In great roman decadence they would celebrate ‘his’ victories in the most grandiose displays of triumph and exultation.
They would throw a parade in which he was adorned in fantastical royal attire – wearing a glorious purple toga topped of with a crown and covered in gold ornaments. He rode across the streets in a chariot painted with the heroic displays of his conquest and pulled forward by the finest white horses – all excellently trimmed and decorated. The common folk would cheer, chant and throw flowers at his feet as he for a moment in time was exalted to a godlike stature.
But – as any wise general would know, this grandiose nurturing of the ego would in turn lead to decay of his spirit. And so behind each of these heroic generals would stand a malnourished slave covered in nothing but undergarments with but a single task; to keep the general’s feet on the ground.
And so at every turn of the corner – the slave would whisper in the ear of the general:
It means: Remember death. You too are a mortal and will die. In time, no one will remember you or the achievements you celebrate today.
The Metaphorical Death
It is virtuous and worthy to remember your mortality. For me, this keeps me humble and grounded and keeps my ego in check. Just for a minute imagine that you might not be here tomorrow. You might go to sleep tonight and never wake up again. Doesn’t that trigger a profound urgency in your body and soul to tell your family and friends how much you love them? This is a beautiful thing!
Buddhism expands on this concept even further by recognizing the impermanence of all things. Everything metaphorically dies and transforms (rebirths) in a different state like a continuous duality of life and death. Our suffering, so their teachings go, results purely from forcefully chasing the construction of an impossible permanence in our life.
How much of your life is truly static and unchangeable? Look back on your life 10 years ago. It is not even close to your current state. In fact, look back to last week. Recognize how the relationships with people have changed. In effect, the old relationship has died and a new one has taken it’s place. You need to be constantly ready for change.
How much more powerful to constantly truly enjoy the current state before it has flown!
I would even propose to go a step further than merely recognizing the cycle of death and appreciating that even though it might soon arrive, it has not arrived yet. I challenge you to actively seek the metaphorical death.
Imagine sitting across a romantic crush you just met. You really like him or her, but you are uncertain whether the feeling is mutual and you are scared to be turned down. Do you dance around this fact, hide in fear, act nice and hope the other makes a move? Or will you go straight towards death of the current state, open up vulnerably and express your feelings?
I like to make comparisons to fantastical stories – and I imagine this to being either a prince in shining, untouched armor – scared of joining his followers in battle and fleeing at first chance (The proverbial ‘nice guy’), or a brave, unarmored barbarian ready to charge towards the front-lines, find riches, conquer woman and fully expressing life.
Ancient mythology is full of these expressions on honor in death. The vikings had the idea that only those who bravely die in battle will go to Valhalla – their concept of Heaven. The Spartans had a saying “Come back with your shield – or on it” to signify the dishonor in retreat and almost all ancient Greek stories value the courage and honor of moving forward in life.
In modern age, I feel like we lost touch with this powerful, inspiring story-telling and progressively slip more and more into safe and boring mediocrity. We flee from the metaphorical death by hiding our glory and accepting a standard, default, medium life. Where are the heroes?
Remember that you cannot hide from death – whether real or metaphorical – and realize that you are an amazing, wonderful human backed up by incredible ancestry and live!
Face your fear
For any readers who like to explore these concept further there are a number of practices one can do to cultivate this understanding and internalization of feelings relating to death. I’ll outline three of them that I have used myself;
- Death Meditation.
Sit down for 10 minutes and focus on your breath. Feel every fiber of your body, the air entering and leaving your lungs, your heart beating and the blood pumping through your veins. Let your mind slowly settle. Once your mind is calm and relaxed – bring the following question to your consciousness:
“Since death is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?”.
Explore the bodily feelings and unconscious thoughts that you experience resulting from it.
(There are so many worthy, positive, life-impacting realizations you can get from this. They are not only too numerous to write up here – they are more powerful if you reach the conclusion yourself by feeling the significance of the impact of the question on your own soul.)
- Facing the fear of literal death.
Cultivate bravery and force yourself into vulnerable humility through the might of mother nature. Go sky-diving, experience the rumble across your body as you watch an avalanche or volcanic eruption or stand in the middle of a thunderstorm wearing nothing other than your undergarments.
- Facing the fear of the metaphorical death
Seek failure. Conjure your bravery, go forth and start that business, ask that girl out, leave that toxic relationship or exercise until you literally fall down through asphyxiation. Being prepared to literally die for your goal is the greatest feeling of conviction there is.
Remember always. You will die. Will you die alive, or will you die being already dead?